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A San Francisco jury on Wednesday awarded $121 million in punitive damages to 17 African-American employees of the maker of Wonder Bread and Twinkies for racial discrimination that denied them promotions, pay raises and even the use of certain bathrooms. The same jury earlier awarded the plaintiffs $11 million in compensatory damages for lost wages and emotional distress. However, Superior Court Judge Stuart Pollak said he would reduce the $11 million award, ruling that the statute of limitations had run on some of the earlier acts of discrimination. But the judge’s action didn’t dampen the enthusiasm with which the punitive damage award was received in his courtroom. “I’m at a loss for words,” said the normally voluble Angela Alioto, lead attorney for most of the plaintiffs in Carroll. v. Interstate Brands Corp., 995728. “This will make a huge difference in how racism is treated in the United States.” Jury foreman Francisco Ortiz agreed. He said jurors heard case after case of racist behavior on the part of IBC. “These people were treated wrong, and we did the right thing,” said Ortiz, who works for a satellite communications company. “We sat here for two months and heard clear and convincing evidence of racial discrimination.” After the verdicts were read, the 17 plaintiffs stood as one and applauded the jurors, many of whom fought back tears. There were embraces, high fives and back slaps. Lead defense attorney Patrick Mullin, who left the courtroom before he could be interviewed, fought an uphill battle throughout the trial that started May 22. All of the plaintiffs testified, telling stories of discrimination and how they felt they had qualified for promotions only to see the jobs go to someone they had trained. Jurors rewarded Gerald Brown the most of any of the plaintiffs, first with $805,000 in compensatory damages and then with $17,950,418 in punitives. Brown, who has a 9-year-old deaf child, said the plaintiffs didn’t want to sue IBC, but the company left them no choice. “It’s the hardest thing in the world to bring your employer into the courtroom, because they’ve been feeding my family for several years,” Brown said. “But I think it was due us.” IBC issued a statement saying it was pleased that Pollak would trim the compensatory damages, but in the same breath conceded disappointment in the huge punitive award. “The facts of this case do not support awarding any damages, much less punitive damages,” said the statement from IBC’s Kansas City corporate headquarters. “We continue to believe that these allegations are unsubstantiated and that extensive legal errors were committed in this trial. We will appeal.” Jurors deliberated less than two hours before returning the punitive damage awards. In closing arguments, an emotional Alioto implored jurors to “Punish them. Punish them. Don’t let them laugh at us.” “Do something to IBC so that they don’t do this again,” she added. “This jury has the power to hit racism nationally.” In his closing, defense counsel Mullin told jurors to set aside any negative feelings they may have about him. “I fight for my clients because it’s my duty,” he said. Mullin told jurors that they speak through verdicts and “you have been heard.” In appealing to the jury, the Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman partner said IBC has taken steps to correct any problems pointed out by the plaintiffs. “I can’t say it’s a perfect workplace,” he said. “Clearly it’s not. But it’s a better workplace than it was a few years ago.” While the trial resolves the allegations of the men who made, packaged and delivered Twinkies, Wonder Bread and Ho-Hos, a second trial of two black women who allege racial discrimination and harassment in the bakery workplace is scheduled to begin Oct. 2.

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